Biography: Marvin Gorman, pt. 2

by Randall S. Frederick

On July 19, 1986, Gorman met with Jimmy Swaggart at his mansion in Baton Rouge. What was said or promised between them differs, as their individual accounts understandably converge on simple details like location, but wildly differ on specifics. Coming out of this meeting, whatever generosity and forgiving spirit Gorman had incurred over the years with the Assemblies of God changed to a mean-spirited desire for vengeance. The Board of Directors at First Assembly of God in New Orleans met immediately following that Saturday session in Baton Rouge and decided to terminate Gorman’s salary forthwith that very night, thereby rendering him without income and sealing the fate on his attempt to purchase Channel 29 in Lake Charles. By the following morning, Sunday, when Gorman would have taken the pulpit and delivered another signature bombastic sermon, all of his personal files had already been burned in a barrel outside the church. His sermon notes and personal effects, such as photos, letters, and notes were all incinerated as well. Faithful congregants, unaware of what had transpired that week as much as they were unaware that the locks were already being changed throughout the church, were met with a sobering message that day. Marvin Gorman was no longer their pastor. It would be three weeks before they were told why, creating a vacuum of information that only bred rumor and gossip.

Without a church and perhaps seeking perhaps to outrun the machinations of his denomination, Gorman continued his dealings to expand his ministry. He stipulated to his attorney and bankers that he had access to underlying financing. While he did not elaborate or share details, he did insist that money would be forthcoming and that the deal would be completed. Given the events that were still swirling and the rumors already being leaked between concerned Christians and coworkers, Gorman asked that the closing date be postponed until October. This seemed like a reasonable request -particularly as there were no other buyers, especially cash buyers, in sight. The parties agreed and went back to the courthouse and filed for an extension of time.

Following that action, I held a private meeting with Gorman and one of my law partners, Greg Massey, to determine what, exactly, was the extent of Gorman’s personal problems with the Assembly of God. In response to our questions, Gorman produced a statement purportedly written by the Louisiana District Council of the Assemblies of God… Although what Gorman handed me and Massey was a photocopy and we could not tell if it had been altered in any way, it was obvious to both of us that the document was a transcribed statement of a presentation that had been given to the church and later mailed out to ministers around the state and possibly all over the country. We also agreed that the statement was outrageous on its face and the contents were unquestionably defamatory. I encouraged Gorman to file suit immediately and enthusiastically volunteered my services if he wished to pursue legal action.

Gorman demurred. He volunteered no details or background concerning the statement except to say that he was certain it had been authored by Jimmy Swaggart, perhaps the most powerful and best known Assembly of God minister in the world, whose headquarters were in Baton Rouge. He said, that while he could not prove it, he was certain that the August 7 letter, which had created the stir among the parties involved in the television station deal, was at least heavily influenced by Swaggart if not actually authored by him.

Gorman was aware at that time that the Board of Directors of the First Assembly of God in New Orleans had met with Swaggart at his home in Baton Rouge in July, which meant they were behind the statement of July 20 pertaining to his resignation from his church. But he had no direct evidence of the authorship of either the August of the September letters. At that time, he made no statement regarding his admission or denial of any of the allegations in any of the letters. (Lundy, 20-25)

The allegations in the September statement were so outrageous and, to a great extent, unprovable even if they were true, that it seemed unreasonable for a man of Gorman’s status and popularity merely to back away without a fight. It alleged that Gorman had participated in an affair, sexually abused a parishioner, violated his role as a pastor and minister, and knowingly and intentionally rejected the correction of his superiors within the denomination who, the letter assured the church, were prayerfully committed to their spiritual growth and were turning First Assembly of God to the oversight of Jimmy Swaggart.

Gorman resigned from the First Assembly of God in New Orleans, which was the base of his financial power. In late fall of 1986, a default judgement was taken against Marvin Gorman for his inability to perform on the buy-sell agreement for Channel 29 in Lake Charles. Within a year, he and Virginia would file for bankruptcy.

Whatever personal issues between Gorman and Swaggart existed were, at this time, rumored. Assumptions. Hearsay. Nothing of substance. Both men had publicly praised one another. But in her biography of the minister, AnnRowe Seaman uncovered an interesting narrative from Swaggart’s family. She discovered that on the day Swaggart’s mother, Minnie Bell, had died (9 June,1960), she had called Marvin Gorman instead of her son, Jimmy. It seems almost a side comment until one understands the nature of Southern Gothic operas.

The first Swaggart to be baptized was Jimmy’s grandmother, Ada. She had returned froma revival in Snake Ridge speaking in tongues and telling others about her experience. The young Jimmy was enthralled by these stories, which he recalls in his autobiography To Cross a River, and so he spent many afternoons at her house, instructed in how to read scripture topically –  seeking an understanding of biblical prophecy during the height of the Atomic Age, for example, and how to “seek God” in the pages of scripture. “Nannie,” as Jimmy called her, had been every bit as wild as the rest of the tightly knit Calhoun-Lewis-Swaggart-Gilley clan. Televangelist Pat Roberston, seeking to discredit Swaggart during the height of the televangelism scandals of the Eighties, said that the clan was “incestuous” and that Jimmy had once confessed to him that his father had watched him have sex with a prostitute, and that he and his cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis, had engaged in sex with the same women. It was a confession similarly shared by Oral Roberts, another televangelist who became entangled in a bizarre fundraising scheme of his own. Roberts, a long respected member of emerging Pentecostals, said that Jimmy “had a demon in him” and had confessed to sexual relations with family members as well. As it was, Nannie was Swaggart’s spiritual mentor for many years and had forsaken the booze, cigarettes, gambling, and assorted “worldliness” at the age of forty-five. When she returned from the Church of God camp at Snake Ridge, she shocked the family with a stern and severe change in character, especially Jimmy’s parents Willie Leon and Minnie Bell, neither of whom had ever heard of the spiritual experiences Ada now shared with them. Even the small twenty-five member congregation of the Assembly of God church they attended branded Ada a fanatic, openly rejecting her. The clan, all the various members of the Calhouns, Lewis’, Swaggarts, and Gilleys, were antagonistic and skeptical; all that is except young Jimmy who was “thrilled” by his grandmother. He kept visiting her, he said, to tell him about “the experience.” In his autobiography, she would tell him

Jimmy, you know when I went to that camp meeting I was so hungry for the Lord. Those services lasted almost twenty-four hours a day. When one preacher finished, we’d sing and then another would start. The services never seemed to end. But one day, I was standing outside the little tabernacle near a grove of trees praying with my brother John and his wife. The presence of God became so real. Suddenly it seemed asif I had been struck by a bolt of lightning. Lying flat on my back, I raised my hands to praise the Lord. No English came out. Only unknown tongues.

Jimmy’s father, concerned by the influence his mother-in-law was having on the boy, finally forbade Jimmy from going to Ada’s house. “Nannie’s gone crazy over religion,” he told his son. “She’s filling your head with junk.” It was the first in a serious of precipitous differences between Jimmy and his parents.

In the summer of 1943, an evangelist came to the Assembly of God church in Ferriday, Louisiana. The Swaggarts, at the urging of Ada, attended as did Elmo and Mamie Lewis and the Gilleys. Jimmy Lee and his cousin, Jerry Lee, who quite happily living out Willie Leon’s prohibition of staying clear of Ada and anything having to do with religion. The cousins were, as they recall, playing a few blocks away with their friends Mack and Huey P. Stone when “they head a piercing scream coming from the church. Jimmy Lee instantly knew it was his mother.”

Although Swaggart’s telling of the events at the revival have been generalized through decades of retelling, interviews with the Swaggarts, Gilleys, Lewis’ and families in Ferriday of Ann Rowe Seaman all corroborate something Jimmy Swaggart only hints at in his autobiography: shame directed towards his mother for her religious display that night.

At the church, the young boys witnessed a powerful scene – the Holy Spirit had broken loose and was pouring itself out upon the congregation. Brother Cason [the visiting evangelist] was standing at the front, leading the congregation in singing after having given the altar call when Minnie Bell Swaggart let loose her howl and bolted from her seat. Mamie Lewis [mother of Jerry Lee Lewis], who was coming back to her seat from the altar where she had answered the call,suddenly leaped in the air and turned back towards the altar. Irene Gilley (Mickey’s mother) was kneeling at the altar in front of brother Cason speaking in tongues. The rest of the congregation had begun to dance, yell, sing, and howl in spiritual jubiliation. Minnie Bell danced past Mamie, who had fallen to the floor,and both were speaking in tongues. Willie Leon was standing still, a huge smile on his face while he shouted at the top of his lungs. The whole church kept getting louder and louder and all the activity gathered speed, like a huge ball rolling down a steep hill. Everyone was in his or her own private world, moving, talking in tongues, dancing, running, shouting, waving arms, heads back shaking their hair, their bodies beyond control. (Cusic 172-73).

Throughout his ministry, Swaggart has been less than enthusiastic about such displays. In the Nineties and again in the Aughts, he discredited ministers and ministries that exhibited similar “signs” of God’s presence. At various times, he attributed such displays to ignorance, worldliness, false religion or “religiosity,” or the catch-all of Pentecostalism, “the flesh” by those who “don’t know better.” Gorman, in contrast, not only welcomed such signs at First Assembly of New Orleans, but his later ministry was known for it. It was one of the primary issues Swaggart claimed to have had with Gorman within the denomination. If Swaggart took issue with fellow televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker building a theme park and resort for Christians (something for which Swaggart was vocally condemnatory), then Gorman would have been another error within the expanding denomination. The Bakkers signified material excess, Gorman spiritual excess.

But, whatever his private feelings towards his parents, Swaggart accepted their spiritual experiences even as he desired his own. At least in childhood. As he entered puberty, like his cousin Jerry Lee, Jimmy began acting out, no doubt invoking the hostile anger of southern sharecropping parents. The wedge continued to divide them until Jimmy married Frances Anderson of Wisner, Alabama when he was seventeen. By this time, Willie Leon was a Pentecostal preacher and Jimmy, by his own admission, a wild teenager. His accounting of this period is contradictory – at one moment pursuing godliness with his musical family, at another cavorting with his cousins, at still another deeply obedient and respectful, gambling and not, maintaining that he never went to movies or “drank a drop in my whole life” by avoiding “honky tonks” while entirely familiar with them, where each one was located in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi as well as who was playing that weekend even though “I’ve never set a foot in a bar in my whole life.” By seventeen, had already quit school because he didn’t like it; he had quit church because he didn’t like that either. Something about other people telling him what to do just didn’t sit well with the hotheaded young man. He had been doing odd jobs to pick up a dollar here and there but didn’t have a steady job. He was arrogant, a brawler like his father, and figured he would make a way for himself even though he never knew how.

Understandably, Jimmy parents did not want him to get married. They knew their rebellious son would have a had time making a living, let alone getting alone with another human being in a marriage. Seaman claims that the clan was very forthcoming with her about Jimmy’s abuse of Frances in the early days of their marriage. For their part, the Andersons were not eager to see their daughter marry Jimmy either; they wanted her to finish high school and go to college. Those plans ended when Jimmy and Frances found a Baptist minister to marry them on a Friday night. The ring Jimmy provided that night was his mothers, which he had borrowed (or stolen?) for the occasion. His father, Willie Leon, could have married them by refused as he felt Jimmy and Frances were too young. He knew his son to be wild, reckless, and irresponsible. It was all wrong but Jimmy was as hardheaded as they came and when he made up his mind to do something, he was going to do it even if – perhaps especially if – everyone else was against it. And though it may appear to be yet another contradiction, Jimmy began preaching soon after he married Frances.

In 1954, Jimmy was a “swamper” in Franklin Parish (“oiling and greasing the dragline” he claimed in his autobiography) and preaching on weekends. He had, he said, long dreamed of becoming a travelling evangelist like Jack Coe, William Branham, and Gordon Lindsay. In January of 1958, Jimmy quit his job and began evangelistic work full time. By 1960, he had been ordained by the Assemblies of God as a preacher and moved to Baton Rouge to be near his father after the death of his mother. So on 9 June, 1960, when Minnie Bell called Marvin Gorman – not her own son – to pray for her and share her last remaining thoughts, it is safe to assume an offense began to germinate. Having worked so hard to renew whatever love existed between him and his mother, Jimmy now knew who had replaced him in his mother’s eyes. He would spend the next decade trying to earn back her posthumous love, coming across Gorman’s path time and time again as both men ascended their respective pulpits.

Continued in part 3

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